Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Curiosity Is the Secret to a Happy Life

Engaging with the unfamiliar can keep mind and body fit. So how to pump up one’s levels of curiosity?

Elemental
Published in
5 min readFeb 13, 2020

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AAnyone who has spent time around kids knows that their young minds are powered by curiosity. The average child probably asks more questions in 10 minutes than the average adult does in 10 days. Kids are curiosity personified.

But as people age, their reservoirs of curiosity tend to dry up. Studies have found that, on average, a person’s openness to new experiences and new sensations declines steadily with age. At the same time, apathy increases. While plenty of older adults buck these trends, there’s some truth to the cliché of the narrow-minded, novelty-averse fogey who rigidly adheres to his time-worn routines and opinions.

For years, mental health researchers have noted this age-related dip in curiosity. They’ve also noticed that high levels of curiosity often correlate with many different measures of mental health and vigor. One 2018 paper from the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found evidence that maintaining curiosity in old age is protective against cognitive and physical decline. Compared to the incurious, older adults who score high in curiosity tend to perform better on tests of memory and general cognitive functioning. The authors of that study point out that curiosity activates brain areas that are involved in other high-level cognitive processes, and over time this increased activation could help explain some of curiosity’s brain benefits.

And in people both young and old, research has found that high and consistent levels of curiosity correlate with mental well-being and life satisfaction. Curious people also seem protected from depression.

The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life. “If you take the fundamental things that people tend to want out of life — strong social relationships and happiness and accomplishing things — all of these are highly linked to curiosity,” says Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious?

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.